Second-year mechanical engineering major Ruby Zoom Houchens takes every opportunity in stride. From working in professor Stephen Robinson’s lab, to serving as a shop tech and photographer, to being involved with multiple campus organizations, she brings a unique and well-rounded approach to engineering that’s already made her a staple of the College of Engineering.
Houchens has come a long way in her life and academic career in a short amount of time. She grew up surrounded by the arts. She attended circus camp as a kid and developed a love for photography and fashion, but also found a talent for math. A high school calculus teacher suggested she try engineering, since it seemed like a good way to combine her interests, so she applied to UC Davis as an engineer.
Her first true introduction to engineering came at UC Davis when she took, “Introduction to Engineering Design” (ENG 3) in her first year. The class taught her to use Arduino microcontrollers, which are used in many different engineering projects.
Along with honing her Arduino skills, she used the class to develop relationships with the graduate student teaching assistants, who helped her get research position first in Alireza Pourreza’s Digital Agriculture Lab, and later in Steve Robinson’s Human/Robotic/Vehicle Integration and Performance Lab.
“I had no Arduino experience before ENG 3—it was my first time even touching the equipment,” she said. “I owe so much to that class.”
She puts this knowledge to use in Robinson’s lab. She is developing a helmet that displays real-time readings of head acceleration forces for astronauts. The helmet trains astronauts to limit their head motion to prevent nausea while in space. The prototype is part of a larger “space ambulance” project, which looks at ways for injured astronauts to return to Earth from the International Space Station in a timely, safe manner. Her first prototype was a success, and she recently presented it to researchers from around the country at the second Space Ambulance Research Conference at UC Davis.
In addition, Houchens was recently hired at the Engineering Student Design Center (ESDC) as a shop technician. She was drawn to the center after taking “Manufacturing Processes” (EME 50), and loved the chance it provided to explore a more hands-on side of engineering. She used the experience to find work with Simone Giertz, a Youtuber who inspires Houchens to combine engineering and imagination.
“I love UC Davis engineering because it has provided me with a much bigger picture of what can be done in engineering,” she said. “I feel very welcome here and I have a lot of gratitude for this place.”
Outside of engineering, Houchens maintains an active and creative lifestyle. On campus, she has worked as a staff photographer for UC Davis Student Affairs Marketing and Communications, she is actively involved with the Davis Swing Dancers community, is a director at TEDxUCDavis and serves as vice president of Engineering Without Borders at UC Davis. She has also written a novel, practices Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and enjoys hiking, rock climbing and travel.
Now in her second year at UC Davis, Houchens works to continue bringing together her technical knowledge, creative background and love of exploration to make an impact on the university and the world.
“Sometimes I felt limited in high school, but now I’m in college and I’m taking advantage of every awesome opportunity I can,” she said.